Bills target Iowa Supreme Court chief justice

Fort Dodge’s Mark Cady is the chief justice of Iowa’s high court, so HF503 and SSB1101 hit close to home

Iowans should be aware that bills have been introduced in the Iowa House and Senate (HF503 and SSB1101) to change the selection process and term of the Iowa Supreme Court chief justice and change the nomination process of Iowa judges from a balanced merit-based process, to a political party-selected and politically-motivated process.

These bills were not introduced to facilitate the workings of the Iowa judicial branch. These bills were not introduced to aid in the workload of the Iowa judicial branch. I believe they were introduced to punish the Iowa Supreme Court and current chief justice for a position taken in a civil rights case 10 years ago. Those pushing the bills believe the Iowa Supreme Court made a political decision on that particular case, when in truth the case came before the Iowa Supreme Court as a question of constitutionality.

There are three branches of the state government for a reason. These three branches, the Legislature, executive (the governor) and the judicial branch, all have a specific function in the governmental process. These legislators are attempting to take the power from the court and place it with the Republican and Democratic parties, which would have a greater role in the process of selecting Iowa judges. Judges who are appointed through a more partisan political selection process will have to toe the line to the party from which they were chosen. This severely lessens the governmental balance of power of Iowa.

I also consider this a challenge to the separation of church and state. While we all would love to have the laws reflect our personal church teachings, no one would be happy with having the laws line up with a faith that was not their own particular faith. Our country was founded on religious freedom, but there is a strong emphasis on the separation of church and state. Civil rights, the belief that we are all equal with the same rights and responsibilities, is the basis of our national and state constitutions. A strong separation of the branches of government is necessary to protect us all.

These bills also hit us close to home. The current chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court is our own Mark Cady of Fort Dodge. He is personally the target of this bill. As the author of the unanimous Varnum v. Brien decision, he has been on the “hit” list of some Republican legislators for 10 years. Cady’s retention to the Iowa Supreme Court has been a point of contention to the same people that worked so hard to oust his fellow justices. But he was not defeated at the ballot. The people of Iowa chose to retain him.

These bills would instead terminate Chief Justice Cady’s term as chief on Jan. 15, 2021, instead of the Dec. 31, 2024, term currently in place. Iowa lawmakers would scream loudly if their terms were shortened by another branch of government. Can you imagine if Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink was told he had to run every three years in the middle of his terms, by the judicial branch?

The judicial branch doesn’t tell the legislative branch how to run things, so the Legislature shouldn’t tell the court how to run its business. The judicial branch is an independent, equal branch of government.

As a distinguished member of our community and the state, we should take pride in Chief Justice Cady’s accomplishments, fairness of decisions, his knowledge of the law and his courage to stand for constitutionally-protected civil rights, even when they are not necessarily held by his own religious faith. From Chief Justice Mark Cady’s own words in the Varnum decision, “Our responsibility … is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, or at one time unimaged, or challenge a deeply engrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.”

I, for one, do not understand the desire to change anything about our current selection process. It is a system that has produced quality judges like Chief Justice Cady for decades. I especially cannot comprehend what appears to be an obvious direct attack on Chief Justice Cady. He has served Iowans with respect for the many years of his very honorable career. The proponents of this bill talk about legislating from the bench. I see this attack on our judicial branch and Supreme Court system a bit differently. I see it as an extreme overreach from one branch of government to another. I see it as the Legislature actually giving a green light to “legislating from the bench,” when it’s their political party in power who can rule the way they want them to.

Do we want the courts taking positions that fly in the face of the Iowa Constitution simply because the majority party at that time wants it that way? I think Iowans expect better and want their court system to be free of politics. Please contact your legislators and tell them to keep politics out of Iowa’s highly respected judicial system.

Matt Bemrich is the mayor of Fort Dodge.

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